Sunderland Vs Stoke City: Big Match preview

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Sunderland boss Steve Bruce will not bow to the pressure of the toughest spell of his reign to date.

The 49-year-old enjoyed a hugely encouraging start to his tenure on Wearside - amassing 20 Barclays Premier League points from the first 39 on offer.

Apart from a frustrating inability to reproduce their home form on the road, a Black Cats side in which new additions Darren Bent, Lee Cattermole, Lorik Cana and Michael Turner were shining was looking set fair for a much improved campaign.

However, with injuries and suspensions having decimated Bruce's squad during the ensuing weeks, the last nine league games have brought just three points and seen the club slide to a position which sees them head into Monday's home clash with Stoke in 13th place and only three points clear of the drop zone.

Bruce is keeping his fingers crossed that Cattermole (back injury and illness), Turner (knee) and Phil Bardsley (hamstring) will be okay to face the Potters.

Kieran Richardson (calf) is unlikely to be available, while Anton Ferdinand (ankle) has yet to return to training.

It has proved a testing period for Bruce, although he is convinced his team's fortunes will improve once he has a full squad from which to choose once again.

He said: "It's been the toughest, yes, but it's part and parcel of it. I could make excuses all day long of what the problems are - the simple fact is we need to get people fit.

"Once we do that and I can get my big players fit, we will be all right. Please believe me, we will be all right.

"But until then, and until I can get a settled back four in particular, we are always going to find it a little bit difficult."

The visits of Stoke and Wigan to the Stadium of Light in the space of six days this week represents an opportunity to redress the balance, although Bruce knows Sunderland can take nothing for granted.

He said: "I don't really feel the pressure - I always think 'pressure' is an over-used word. You know the job you are in.

"I always tried to quell the expectation, I always tried to say to people, 'Listen, we have just been out of the Championship two years, we have been in the bottom five for two years, so it's going to take a big turnaround, it is going to take time before we get ourselves established'.

"You always try to go down that route. It's not very easy and of course with a club like ours when you get off to a great start, the expectation goes through the roof."

Stoke manager Tony Pulis has a fully fit squad to choose from ahead of the clash.

Captain Abdoulaye Faye returned to training this week after missing Sunday's 3-1 win over Arsenal in the FA Cup with a calf injury.

Pulis is also still hopeful of completing a deal to bring Portsmouth goalkeeper David James to the club before Monday's transfer deadline.

In attack, the Potters boss has vowed to continue rotating his strikers despite the exploits of Ricardo Fuller and Mamady Sidibe in last weekend's victory over the Gunners.

Fuller opened the scoring after 70 seconds and added a second from Sidibe's cross.

The pairing looked as effective as any has done for Stoke this season, but Pulis has mixed and matched his forwards throughout the campaign and stressed that last week's performance will have little bearing on his selection at the Stadium of Light.

Asked if he thought Fuller and Sidibe was his best combination up front, Pulis said: "No, and I think you'll see us chop and change a little bit with the forwards.

"We have given Ric a couple of games off and he's come back and he looked bright, sharp and ready to go.

"We've got good players up there and we want to use them in the right way.

"Now Tuncay's had a bit of a rest and I might bring him back in at some point and give him the first hour.

"I think those two players are special players for us and Mama (Sidibe) and James (Beattie) are different centre-forwards.

"Tuncay and Ric are the special ones and they are the ones that can really turn games, so sometimes they need a rest."

Despite Sunderland's poor run of late, Pulis is expecting a difficult test.

He added: "We have got (Liam) Lawrence going back, (Rory) Delap going back, (Dean) Whitehead, (Danny) Collins, (Danny) Higginbotham - quite a few of the players who have had times up there, and enjoyed their times up there as well.

"Irrespective of what they (Sunderland) have done or haven't done, it's going to be a tough game."

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